The figure of the criminal holds a special place in the Australian imagination, which is, after all, that of a convict nation. Ned Kelly’s life and crimes have inspired many of our artists, filmmakers and novelists, and contemporary criminal figures – from Chopper Read to Ivan Milat – have also attracted attention. As these examples suggest, the criminal antihero has proved resiliently male. Fiona Kelly McGregor’s new historical novel disrupts that patriarchal tradition. Iris narrates the history – or herstory – of a woman, Iris Webber, from the criminal underworld of 1930s Sydney.
McGregor’s novel might be productively compared with Peter Carey’s True History of the Kelly Gang. Firstly, both are informed by archival documents. The celebrated first-person ventriloquy of Carey’s novel was inspired by the voice of Ned Kelly in the so-called Jerilderie letter. McGregor attempts a similar act of ventriloquism, inhabiting the voice of her working-class antihero, though Iris’s voice is very different. While Carey’s performance is polished and stylised, McGregor aims for gritty realism. The characters speak in a bawdy vernacular: “piss awf”, “yer a tart”. They also menstruate, go to the toilet and have sex in grungy detail.
In another interesting parallel – though the difference, again, may be more significant than the similarity – while Carey ambiguously imagines Kelly engaging in transvestism, McGregor sympathetically profiles the LGBTQI underworld, criminalised simply due to their identities.
Iris begins her life of crime as a young woman in rural New South Wales, stealing from the house where she works as a domestic. Her first run-in with the law occurs after she shoots and wounds her brutish husband, from whom she derives her surname and her grudge against the patriarchy: “Damn all the women who cowered before their men & damn all the men who stood over them.” After moving to Sydney, Iris begins working as a “prossie”, which is when she also falls in love with a female colleague.
McGregor’s cast is large and unwieldy and Iris’s life story loose and fast-paced, though McGregor introduces structure through intermittent third-person chapters describing a court case being heard in the novel’s present, 1937. Iris has been involved in the shooting of another man, though we don’t know in what capacity. These chapters provide a sense of whodunnit tension, but whether you take to this novel or not will come down to whether you take to Iris: her voice, her story, her relationships, her repetitive life of petty crime. The author, apparently planning a sequel, certainly has.
Picador, 464pp, $34.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 29, 2022 as "Fiona Kelly McGregor, Iris".
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